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Asian youth role models hard to find

Quick, name role models for a black child or teen. Martin Luther King, Jr.? Barack Obama? Oprah Winfrey?

How about for a Latino youth? Portland has a street named for one — César Chávez. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is another.

Now, how about some nationally recognizable Asian-American role models? Not so easy. And that, says Pepperdine University sociologist Rebecca Kim, reveals a big problem. If Asian-Americans are the models of success so many believe them to be, Kim says, there ought to be public figures to inspire Asian youth to become involved in public life.

Yes, at UCLA more than 4 of 10 undergraduate students are Asian. At the University of California Berkeley, close to half the students are Asian. Kim says at the top music conservatories in the United States, the Asian percentage of students is even higher. But even those high achievers will face barriers, according to Kim.

“Asian-Americans are perpetually viewed as foreigners who are not quite ‘American,’ ” she says. “They face a glass ceiling in promotions, particularly to managerial /leadership positions.”

In Portland, no Asian-American has sat on the City Council or won a race for a significant local office, says Mary Li, a department manager of human services for Multnomah County and board member of the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon. Though David Wu did serve several terms as a local U.S. congressman,

Li says Portland Asians have never politically organized as they have in Seattle and San Francisco, where their populations are larger. That’s because so many here still take their cultural cues from their Asian background rather than an American perspective.

“You have to step outside your own culture in order to be present and visible in this culture,” Li says. Too few Asians in Portland are willing to do that, she adds.

Li says another reason is the way politics is practiced in Portland, compared to, say, San Francisco, where Asian community advocates have embraced confrontation as a political weapon. Some of them have come to Portland, she says, and found they couldn’t duplicate their efforts.

“They crash and burn because that’s not how politics works here in Portland,” Li says. “Maybe it’s that 'Portland nice.' ”

Kathy Wai, an organizer for Service Employees International Union who previously lived in San Francisco, says the large numbers of refugees in Portland find themselves separated by their different immigrant experiences and ethnicities. Until recently, they haven’t joined together under a pan-Asian banner.

“These waves and waves of refugee families that are here, for some reason, they’ve stayed pretty isolated from the mainstream community,” Wai says.